This article was peer reviewed. 


How do we keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner? How do we forget it without risking its repetition in the future? Is it legitimate to sacrifice the truth to ensure peace? And what are the consequences of suppressing that past and the truth it is whispering or howling to us? … [And can] violence be avoided?1

Rape-revenge is generally not an art for the forgetful. 2 Retributive violence is about bringing the monsters of memory to bear on the present, about making the living bend under the weight of the dead. Enjoying revenge drama is about relishing the struggle between the will to remember, and the desire to forget. A sense of history sharpens one’s enjoyment. This article springs from that kind of relish. It brings cinematic history to bear on the most recent entry in the rape-revenge genre: Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020). Carol Clover famously identified the rape-revenge with Second Wave feminism in 1992.3 Writing in 2000, Jacinda Read opined that rape-revenge had had its day.4 However, as Alexandra Heller-Nicholas demonstrated in 2011 and Claire Henry wrote 2014, it was burgeoning then.5 The continued cinematic and political currency of rape-revenge is suggested by recent remakes of 1970s rape-revenge films and their sequels: The Last House on the Left (Dennis Iliadis, 2009); I Spit on Your Grave (Steven R. Monroe, 2010); I Spit on Your Grave 2 (Steven R. Monroe, 2013), I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance is Mine (R. D. Braunstein, 2015), and I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà Vu, (Meir Zarchi, 2019). These male-directed films are often problematic with regard to feminist politics. As Heller-Nicholas says, “The combination of rape and revenge when united in cinema have long been synonymous with exploitation and misogyny.”6 With Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2017) Martin McDonagh made a woman-centred rape-revenge film, and entered Oscars territory. Frances McDormand won a Best Actress award for her depiction of Mildred Hayes, and the film won a BAFTA. McDormand’s ferocious performance notwithstanding, Three Billboards is equivocal whether it is from a feminist perspective. Mildred can only, finally, achieve her revenge by adopting a male chaperone.7 Promising Young Woman also attracted an Academy Award nomination for Carey Mulligan as Best Actress, playing Cassandra (Cassie), and Fennell’s screenplay won both Academy and BAFTA awards for Best Original Screenplay. Woman centred rape-revenge has entered the mainstream. 

But by contrast with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which was made by a man in an effort to compensate for the hypermasculinity of his previous projects, 8 Promising Young Woman was directed by a woman with backing from Margot Robbie’s production house LuckyChap Entertainment.9 As Heller-Nicholas points out, misogynist assumptions have “for far too long eradicated the very long history of women filmmakers who have addressed sexual violence on screen.”10 Promising Young Woman participates in a new, female-directed mini cycle of rape-revenge films, including Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (Coralie Fargeat, 2017), M.F.A. (AKA Revenge Artist, Natalia Leite, 2017), and Violation (Madelaine Sims Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli, 2020), which starred its female co-director as the rape avenger. Promising Young Woman enters into conversation with the 1970s rape-revenge films and their remakes and with older cinematic antecedents. Significantly, it quotes The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955) visually, structurally and sonically. In that film, Robert Mitchum stars as the Reverend Harry Powell—a self-styled prophet-warrior in a war against women. And Mitchum’s intertextual presence invokes another role: Max Cady in Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962), remade by Martin Scorsese in 1991. Promising Young Woman renegotiates the material of Night of the Hunter and goes to war with the Cape Fear films over what is at stake in rape-revenge, including the status of the cisgender woman herself. Promising Young Woman interrogates its cinematic antecedents, including both rape-revenge films and older thrillers, to explore avenues for women to negotiate contemporary issues in gendered violence and consent. It wrests rape-revenge back in the direction of the cisgender woman avenger. It also interrogates the ethics, affordances and dangers of rape-revenge as a genre. It carves new generic pathways for rape-revenge, revealing, and playing with, its limitations and ironies.


I use a combination of paratextual, discourse and genre analysis backed by intertextual reading. This allows for a complex, complete look at the film and its relationship to current discussions around male violence against women. I will position Promising Young Woman in terms of the academic literature on rape-revenge. Issues of gender do attend this analysis, but many of the ideas I allude to are well-rehearsed (e.g. Laura Mulvey’s male gaze) 11 and they do not require elaboration here. While the article touches on transgender representation on screen, Promising Young Woman itself focuses on the cisgender female experience. As this is a relatively recent film, there has not been time for a discourse to arise around in in peer-reviewed and scholarly resources. Accordingly, I will make liberal use of film reviews and commentary in the popular press as sources of evidence and analysis. This is, after all, where the most urgent debates over issues including sexual consent are occurring. 


Cassie has dropped out of college about seven years before the drama begins after fellow student Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) had sex with her friend Nina while Nina was too drunk to consent. Nina, it is implied, has suicided. We find Cassie living with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), working a dead-end job in a coffee shop with friend Gail (Laverne Cox), and going out at night to pick men up by seemingly “asking for it,” and then scaring them straight by confronting them with their behaviour when they go too far. She meets an old college acquaintance, Ryan (Bo Burnham), who is a friend of Al’s. Al is seemingly flourishing, and is about to be married. Cassie starts a romance with Ryan, but at the same time begins pursuing revenge against Al and Al’s friends who abetted and apologised for him. These include smug young mother Madison (Alison Brie). Cassie invites Madison to lunch and confronts her with her complicity with the date-rape culture of college. When she finds Madison unrepentant, and in fact, inclined to blame the victim, Cassie sets Madison up to believe that she, too, has had a sexual encounter while too drunk to consent. Other disturbing incidents occur. Cassie also confronts the Dean of the University (Connie Britton) who believed Al over Nina, and leads her to believe that she has set her daughter Amber up (Francisca Estevez) to be raped in the same way in order to secure an apology. Cassie next visits Al’s lawyer Jordan Green (Alfred Molina), but finds him thoroughly repentant. He exposes the slut-shaming and general victimising of the survivor that would have taken place had the case gone to trial. Cassie forgives him, and calls off whatever revenge she had in mind for him. Nina then visits Cassie’s mother, who urges her to move on. Cassie does—falling in love with Ryan. A romance montage follows, during which Cassie apparently abandons revenge. However, Madison, who has been dogging Cassie with phone calls and texts desperate to find out what happened after their lunch, comes to Cassie’s house and shows her a tape of Nina’s rape. Cassie can barely watch, but what is most chilling is that she hears Ryan’s voice on the soundtrack. He was a bystander and abettor. Cassie is devastated, and turns back to revenge. Cassie confronts Ryan and threatens to expose him if he does not tell her where Al’s bachelor party is. He does so. She goes to the party, which is in a cabin in the woods, and gains entrance by dressing as a stripper. She drugs all the guests except Al, whom she ties to the bed. She is about to carve Nina’s name into his body with a scalpel when Al partially breaks free of his shackles and overpowers her, smothering her. In the morning, his friend Joe (Max Greenfield) finds Joe next to Nina’s body, but reassures him that the murder is not his fault. The two dispose of Nina’s body by burning it. Back in the city, Detective Lincoln (Steve Monroe) conducts a missing persons search for Cassie. Ryan does not tell him where Cassie was intending to go. The final scene is at Al’s wedding reception. All appears to be going well for Al, but then Ryan receives texts from Cassie, apparently pre-scheduled, saying that things are not finished. Cassie has sent Jordan Green a copy of the tape and information about her visit to Al’s party, in case she should not return. The police arrive at the wedding reception and arrest Al for murder. 

Promising Young Woman, rape-revenge and #metoo

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ends with a ;), a wink emoticon. This marks it as of its moment, the era of text messaging and Twitter, the era of hashtags and social media campaigns surrounding consent and sexual harassment. This wink also carries through on the somewhat developmentally arrested ’00s feminine playfulness that typifies Cassie and the film’s aesthetic and sonic textures. But I am more interested in what this wink says about its generic past: Promising Young Woman knowingly evokes but subverts the audience’s expectations of rape-revenge. It plays with its referents in a self-aware way that Heller-Nicholas says is typical of “revisionist” rape-revenge since the 2000s.12 The implication of the audience is present from the first episode, when Cassie, apparently falling down drunk, entraps a “nice” young man, Jerry (Adam Brody), into attempting to take sexual advantage of her. He is just on the verge of going too far when Cassie looks to camera before levitating from the bed and asks him in a stone-cold sober voice “What are you doing?” 

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman

Cassie confronts Jerry with an awareness of what he is doing, of his expectations, of his taken-for-granted assumptions. There is a cut for the credits. We expect blood. At first, the following shot, which sees Cassie walking down the street with viscous red liquid dripping down her arm appears to offer it, until we pan up and discover this is just the tomato sauce from a breakfast sandwich. She is avenging her Nina. However, her revenge is non-violent. In the same way Cassie confronts would-be predators, Promising Young Woman confronts the audience of rape-revenge with their expectations, offering dark playfulness and non-violence where a woman’s retaliatory violence is expected. It does this most notably at closure because it ends not with the taking down of the rapist Al, but with Cassie’s death. The way this scene is filmed defies rape-revenge tropes. Other recent remakes like I Spit on Your Grave indulge in spectacular torture porn focussing on the suffering and death of men. In Revenge, Jen (Matilda Lutz) bests the man (Kevin Janssens) who is hunting her down to kill her by thrusting her hand into a shotgun wound she has made in his stomach. Promising Young Woman, by contrast, gives us a full two minutes of a woman dying. The scene starts violently. Al, handcuffed to the bed, manages to free one hand, and overpowers Cassie. The action and the editing are violent. He straddles her. On the soundtrack, attacking strings are heard. The bed turns vertical on the screen, maximising disorientation. Cassie fights Al off gamely, but the last time we see her face, she is in terror. Then Al puts a pillow over it and holds it down with his knee, screaming at her to stop moving. After that, we never see Cassie’s face again. The extra-diegetic soundtrack becomes ominous and abstract, Cassie’s screams coming through in a muffled way. Al, panting with exertion, gasps out “This is your fucking fault.” Cassie continues to struggle, her limb flailing with less and less energy, as the scene winds down. Al is ugly crying. Finally, Cassie lies still. An overhead shot reveals that her arms and torso are cruciform. Al, exhausted but still tethered to the bed by one hand, collapses next to Cassie’s body.

Promising Young Woman

The killing is bloodless, but as Anne Cohen says, “the death scene is excruciating to watch. Fennell holds the camera on Al and Cassie, her gaze unrelenting and unwilling to give the audience any relief. Why should we be able to look away? A woman is losing her life.”13 This was not Fennell’s first idea for the ending. That was more violent and went Cassie’s way. But she decided that the revenge as it is represented by films like Kill Bill Vol 1 and Vol 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003 and 2004) was fantastic: “There’s a reason woman do not resort to violence … Because they f—ing lose when they do.”14 Fennell says, “It just seemed too easy to say that she would carve Nina’s name into his body and cut his dick off, and then walk out of the cabin in slow motion smoking a cigarette. I wish she could because I wish all of us could. But it’s just not true.”15 So the audience doesn’t get the rape-revenge pay-off at closure. 

In fact, Fennell has said that Promising Young Woman is about forgiveness and romance as much as it is about revenge, and in the long third act Cassie certainly does forgive, and start to move on, enjoying a brief rom com reprieve from seeking revenge.16 Cassie’s general depression in other sections reveals that revenge is dangerous, toxic, addictive, and corrosive as the rescored sampling of Britney Spear’s song suggests. But the ending in which Cassie dies was too dark for the studio, which insisted on a coda.17 The final scene—the arrest of Al at his own wedding reception—is a problematic ending. It is questionable whether the law, previously demonstrably inadequate, would secure justice. As Mary Beth McAndrew writes, all this shows is that “two women had to die for a man just to get arrested.”18 This in itself might be an indictment of the law, but if so it risks being too subtle to land its punch. But perhaps this disempowering ending is as it should be. Jenny Singer observes: 

Promising Young Woman promised, with a wink, to be a movie about strong, hot women exacting violent revenge. It follows through, but in a distorted, sickly way. Nonviolent resistance, it demonstrates, does not work. And violent resistance, it shows, is unsustainable. Women aren’t responsible for taking revenge against rape into our own hands. We’re not a sisterhood capable of standing separate and pure of patriarchal instincts. We do live in a time when rapists are almost totally protected, and any “justice” after a rape comes at an unspeakable cost. Promising Young Woman doesn’t offer a solution. Instead, it confirms our quiet suspicion: This is intolerable.19 

In 2014, Claire Henry wrote about another rape-revenge film – Katelin Varga (Peter Strickland, 2009) – that ends the same way, with the death of the avenger, and she asked of it “Is rape-revenge not (or no longer) a feminist genre?”20 The evidence of Fargeat’s Revenge is equivocal. Despite the fact that Anne Billson has connected it with the #metoo movement it lingers on its protagonist’s body in extremis in ways that reproduce the problematic male gaze of unreconstructed rape-revenge movies.21 Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli’s Violation, too, is problematic, but for the opposite reason. Instead of focussing on the rape victim/survivor Miriam’s (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) body in pain, it focusses on the extremity of her revenge in lingering on the detail of her gruesome act of revenge. Where Revenge spectacularizes female suffering, Violation spectacularizes the violation of a male body. Miriam is raped in her sleep by her brother-in-law. The scene is subtle and non-violent relative to the grisly detail in the film depicts which Miriam’s revenge, and disposal of the rapist Dylan’s (Jesse LaVercombe) body. This culminates in her feeding the remains to her family at a picnic: the revenge is disproportionate to the crime and the avenger becomes truly monstrous. Apart from its refusal to meditate on rape as an act of violence, Violation continues the rape-revenge genre’s oldest tropes in a visceral and fairly straightforward way. 


Promising Young Woman

Leite’s M.F.A. shares Promising Young Woman’s college date-rape scenario. It stars Francesca Eastwood, who revises and updates her father’s role in Sudden Impact (Clint Eastwood, 1983), a film which itself balanced its gender politics on a knife edge. In M.F.A Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) starts out by accidentally killing her own rapist, but then becomes a proxy avenger for friend Skye (Leah McKendrick) without Skye’s knowledge or consent. This culminates in Skye’s suicide and Noelle’s arrest. McAndrews points out that Cassie, like Noelle, effectively appropriates Nina’s trauma and thus silences her.22 The critics are divided on Promising Young Woman’s feminist credentials and its place in the rape-revenge genre, for reasons Caetlin Benson-Allott outlines:

Fennell’s movie confuses spectators, because it doesn’t simply deviate from the rules of the rape-revenge genre: It questions the value of genre rules, period. Like its heroine, Cassie, it looks appealing and easy to understand: a gum-popping, Technicolor critique of rape culture … But Fennell’s movie does more than just update old formulas. It shows how those formulas inhibit viewers from grasping psychological and moral complexity.23

Some have compared Promising Young Women unfavourably with Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (2020), which experimentally explores consent in a “kaleidoscope” of sexual consent scenarios from a black perspective and including that of a gay man – an important corrective to the white cisgender woman focus of most revenge drama.24 Its final episode “Ego Death,” stages a revenge fantasy, but ultimately its protagonist Arabella (Michaela Coel) moves on. However, I think Fennell’s 2-hour feature film cannot be reproached for not being as comprehensive as a 12-part TV series. Nor should Fennel appropriate perspectives other than that of the white cisgender woman. Alison Willmore says that the timing of their release prevented Promising Young Woman and I May Destroy You from entering into conversation or debate, but I disagree.25 They are sufficiently proximate to resonate with each other. Each inflects the discussion of rape, consent, revenge and forgiveness interestingly.

Robert Mitchum, The Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear and the renegotiation of gender

Dan Scully says, 

Here’s the thing: [Promising Young Woman] does not give a single fuck whether you like it or not, and chances are, if you’re upset by it, well, maybe you should be … This is indeed a feminist text with some very sharp satirical barbs.26

But satire works better if it is at least moderately attractive, and Fennell did want people to like the film … to a point: “I wanted to write something that didn’t feel like medicine, that would be accessible and gripping and funny, even at its darkest. A film that anyone could watch and discuss: a poison popcorn movie.”27. Fennell designed Promising Young Woman to seduce, to trick. She sent Mulligan mood boards and musical playlists along with the script, encapsulating the look and sound of the film, as well as its intertextual references.28 These included casting lovable boys from teen comedies and rom coms to play the various creeps and perves Cassie confronts to underline the idea that “nice” guys are not to be trusted.29 However, I want to focus on one of Fennell’s references in particular: The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955). Fennell says it is “one of my absolute favorites … Is there a more theatrical movie that exists? It’s completely built. It’s also the most frightening film ever made. It’s the most real film ever made. It hits me in a way that’s nothing else can.”30 This of course includes the intertextual presence of Robert Mitchum, who stars as the Reverend Harry Powell. His modus operandi is to seduce, rob and murder widows. A sampling of the film plays on Cassie’s parents’ television set just as she is leaving the house, dressed up for a date, which is not, for a change, an opportunity for entrapment. The full text his speech reveals his history of serial killing, and his misogynist motivations:

Well now, what’s it to be, Lord? Another widow? How many’s it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember. You say the word, Lord. I’m on my way … Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. Not that you mind the killings. Your book is full of killings. But there are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smelling things. Lacy things. Things with curly hair. There are too many of them. You can’t kill a world.


Night of the Hunter

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman reverses the gendering of hunting. The hunter is Cassie, who turns the tables on men. Where Powell coldly shuts down Willa (Shelley Winters) and frustrates her sexually on their wedding night, Cassie does the same with the men she allows to take her home. Notoriously, in The Night of the Hunter, Harry Powell’s knuckles are tattooed LOVE and HATE, and he frequently plays out the struggle between them during the film. It is on this dialectic that A Promising Young Woman turns, too, with its rom com interlude punctuating and temporarily derailing Cassie’s revenge mission. And more is at stake in the dialectic between seduction and menace represented by Harry Powell. As Rivieccio says, “Robert Mitchum playing the role of a minister posing as a benevolent being… plays off the fact that both Nina’s rapist and Cassie herself have gotten far in their machinations by posing as ‘sources of good’ – innocents – in order to worm their way into certain people’s lives.”31 But as Katie McCabe observes Powell’s being a man matters. Powell “ends up seducing an entire town. [The clip from The Night of the Hunter is] a reminder of how easy it can be for men to commit violence against women, and have the world on their side.”32

Another aspect of Night of the Hunter is also interesting relates to the strength of women. Davis Grubb, the author of the source novel, insisted on it, meaning that in the sense of women’s emotional endurance, their strength of character, their “abiding,” rather than their physical strength.33 But violence is included, too. At the end of The Night of the Hunter, it is a frail old lady, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who finally brings down Cady by shooting and maiming him: a violent act for an apparently ‘fragile’ creature. She succeeds in besting him because he has brought a knife to a gunfight. In having Cassie die at Al Munroe’s hands, Promising Young Woman responds to the fantasy that Charles Laughton’s film perpetuated: that a woman can win in a violent confrontation with a man. Charles Laughton, recognising Gish’s combination of femininity and strength, called her his ‘iron butterfly.’34 Cassie may be similarly steely in her determination, but Fennell draws clear lines around the limits of her power.

I have said that Fennel points to realism as motivating this renegotiation, it may have more to do with the formal and generic constraints of contemporary cinema. The Night of the Hunter is a fantasy, a dark romance, an allegory, and a sacred vision. Gish is God’s true agent; Mitchum is the Dark One. Gish’s power is unlimited because that is her appointed function (to save the children, offer a family with a new Father). It is only insofar as Promising Young Woman offers something recognizably ‘realist’ that it feels it is obliged to depart from this sacred text of American culture, and that could well be its weakness. Promising Young Woman seems to buy into an abiding acquiescence to the prevailing norms and standards of what is plausible.

Cassie may channel Gish, but she also channels Mitchum. In addition to Night of the Hunter, Promising Young Woman also invokes one of Mitchum’s other roles: that of Max Cady. Cady, a convicted rapist, emerges from prison hell bent on revenge on a lawyer, Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), who was a witness at Cady’s trial. He stalks Bowden and his family, which consists of a wife, Peggy (Polly Bergen), and an adolescent daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). Cady demonstrates that Bowden’s fears are justified by assaulting a drifter, Diane (Barrie Chase), who is too intimidated by him to report the incident to the police. The police here are seen as limited but not culpable. There is a perverse exploitation of the law by the avenging rapist, but Cady is not content with that and ultimately pursues the family to an isolated houseboat, where he menaces Peggy with rape. He torments her by threatening to say she consented in exchange for his leaving her daughter alone. Bowden saves the day and, rather than descend to Cady’s level and kill him, turns him over to the police. So Mitchum in Promising Young Women brings with him the intertextual presence of Cady-as-rapist. The inflection of Cassie’s role by Mitchum—first as hunter in Night of the Hunter and then as rapist in Cape Fear—casts a sinister shadow over the incidents when Cassie  entraps men and apparently exposes women to risk of rape. Rachel Cooper notwithstanding, The Night of the Hunter and Thompson’s Cape Fear are complex intertextual presences in Promising Young Woman that cast Cassie’s revenge project in an equivocal light. 

Cape Fear was remade, luridly, by Scorsese in 1991. In Scorsese’s version, the cheesy, virtuous Bowden family of the 1960s has become a disaffected family riven with strife. Cady (Robert de Niro) at first merely exacerbates those tensions. But what is more interesting is that Bowden (Nick Nolte) has switched sides from being one of the good guys to being a morally questionable representative of the law. At Cady’s trial for rape, Bowden was his defence lawyer, and suppressed a report that the survivor was promiscuous which would have played in Cady’s favour. Like Jordan Green, the lawyer in Promising Young Woman who confesses to trawling young women’s social media for compromising material, Bowden in 1991 is aware of the problems of the law when it comes to “slut shaming” survivors. That Bowden’s cynicism is justified is seen when Cady rapes Bowden’s girlfriend Lori (Illeana Douglas). Where the 1962 drifter was scared of Cady, Lori is scared of the legal process itself: she has been drinking; she went home with him; she will be on trial; she will not testify. Robert Mitchum again makes an appearance, and he also has swapped sides: this time he is the policeman Lieutenant Elgart who hints, improperly, that Sam take the law into his own hands. Scorsese casts Mitchum as part of his remodelling of the materials 1962 thriller to indict the law at every turn. This includes driving the lawyer well outside its boundaries. Where Bowden in 1961 turned Cady over to the law at the end of the drama, in 1991 Bowden tries to kill him. The lawyer is driven to take the law into his own hands: to seek revenge.

Ever the masculinist director, Scorsese also complicates the discourse on consent. Where in the 1962 version it was Cady who threatened Peggy that he would lie about her consent bargain, in the 1991 version Leigh (Jessica Lange) volunteers herself instead of her daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). But even more interesting, in this iteration Cady claims to be a rape victim. He asks Bowden: 

Cady: Have you ever been a woman?

Bowden: “A woman?”

Cady: Some fat, hairy, hillbilly’s wet dream?…

Bowden: Look Mr. Cady: I realize you suffered in prison  – 

Cady: Suffered?” No, counsellor, I learned to get in touch with the feminine side of myself. The soft, nurturing side.

Bowen: I’m open to discussion. On the money. 

Cady: Oh, yes. So: shall we itemize? What shall be my remuneration for being held down and sodomized by four white guys? Four black guys? Shall my compensation bet the same? What is the formula, sir?

There are two things to note here. First, Cady interrogates the manoeuvre by which corporeal damage or lost time are abstracted by the law into compensation. He is not really interested in such abstractions. In the economy of revenge, cash will not do. He demands his pound of flesh. Second, the hypermasculine DeNiro-as-rapist-Cady makes claim to understand how women feel. This from the man who attempts to seduce Danielle by telling her that an erection is “like a lead pipe with wings.” His hypermasculinity are insisted upon in a  scene in which he strips in a police line-up. His well-muscled physique is covered in tattoos about truth, vengeance and justice. 

Cape Fear

Cape Fear

Cape Fear

This scene is complex: on the one hand he is displayed to-be-looked at through one way glass, typically the feminine position in cinema. On the other, he is as menacing as he is objectified. Cape Fear plays with and against, Laura Mulvey’s gaze theory. Cady again slips into a highly ironic feminine persona when he cross dresses as the Bowdens’ maid Graciella to invade the family home and begin a murder spree. DeNiro’s Cady represents a thorough wrong-footing in terms of the gendering of rape-revenge. 

It is from this trajectory—through Robert Mitchum’s Powell and Cady to DeNiro’s drag that Fennell wrests back avenging action towards the cisgender woman and conspicuously feminine protagonist. This is in contrast to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, where Mildred Hays unsexes herself in order to undertake vigilante action.35. In his controversial review, Dennis Harvey says “Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag,” suggesting the character is displaying her lack of ‘essential’ relationship to the gear she wears, she is leaving open a sliver of real inauthenticity for the wary to detect; but they never do.36

Promising Young Woman

However, in proximity to the transgender woman Laverne Cox such characterisations are problematic.37 Variety has apologized for Harvey’s review on that and other grounds.38 But nonetheless, Promising Young Woman insists on Cassie’s cisgender femininity. As McAndrews says,

Promising Young Woman is steeped in a neon pink high-femme aesthetic not unlike what’s seen in Coralie Fargeat’s rape-revenge film Revenge … But unlike Fargeat, Fennell has this imagery persist throughout, painting a bright picture of a woman scorned who weaponizes her femininity instead of shedding it.39 

This is in defiance of rape-revenge type, where women typically have to “uglify” or “man up.”40 As Fennell has pointed out, dismissing femininity as frivolous is itself a form of misogyny.41 As it is, Cassie’s “shrewd deployment of femininity … is her superpower. She might as well have L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E bedazzled on her candy-colored nails, just like Robert Mitchum.”42


And so we come back to Night of the Hunter. Promising Young Woman follows that film’s 6-part structure,43 consisting of a prologue and 5 acts, each act delineated by an initial roman numeral. This is diegetically motivated by Cassie’s notebook of “hits,” but it also recalls the 5-act structure of a much older form of revenge drama: the Jacobean Revenge Tragedy, in which boys typically played women’s roles. Fennell must surely have studied them when she took her degree in English from Oxford University.44 This is a departure from the typical structure of rape-revenge movies, which consist of two phases: the rape and the revenge. In the case of Promising Young Woman, confirmation of the rape in the form of the videotape does not occur until late in act 3, and even then, the audience is not shown it graphically. This contrasts with most rape-revenge films, in which being confronted with the brutality of the rape, which usually occurs early, is crucial the “justifying” the violence of the subsequent revenge.45 Revenge is typical, and M.F.A. starts with a graphic rape and includes a rape tape that is replayed for the audience at intervals throughout the drama. This is problematic in terms of the spectacularization of women’s sexualized suffering. It is one of the ways in which rape-revenge perpetuates a misogynist male gaze. This means it is important that Promising Young Woman’s tape is never shown to the audience. Rather, its impact is legible in Carey Mulligan’s affective reaction. Madison gives her the phone with the tape and then leaves. Cassie, left alone, hesitates before picking it up. A slow zoom in focuses her interaction with the phone as unsettling music strikes up on the soundtrack. Cassie confronts the phone. By contrast with her death scene, here the focus is on her face, which is seen in close up. She is already weeping before she even starts playing it. At first, she cannot bear to look. But then she hears something, and cannot look away. There is a slow and subtle zoom out as truth dawns. The key to Cassie’s horror is sonic. She hears Ryan’s voice on the tape: he was an onlooker. 

Promising Young Woman


Immediately after Cassie has watched the rape tape, she flees outside. On the soundtrack, we hear “Pearl’s Dream,” an “eerie,” “bittersweet” song from The Night of the Hunter.46 In the 1955 film, the song comes just as the children evade the pursuing hunter and find themselves, like Cassie, adrift.47 Cassie finds she has moved from hunter to prey – prey like Nina. As Rivieccio says, “The song … notes that it’s ‘a hard world for little creatures’ – like ‘fragile’ women.”48 Amy Skjerseth has written about the cinematic afterlife of this song. Particularly, she discusses its sampling in Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998), where it is superimposed over a very young woman who is sexualized and fetishized.49 “Pearl’s Dream” then, brings with it a sense of innocence imperilled or betrayed, including the sexual innocence of a young woman. Skjerseth says The Night of the Hunter’s river sequence, with “Pearl’s Dream,” “mixes modes of real-world identification and surrealist dream.”50 So does the “Pearl’s Dream” sequence in Promising Young Woman, albeit nightmare. This mix of fantasy and realism exemplifies the way Promising Young Woman takes the materials of rape-revenge and rom com genres and tests them in the context of a world that is not yet post-patriarchy. But the invocation of “Pearl’s Dream” suggests the pitfalls of too much ‘realism. Only fantasy, dream, reverie can give us the imaginative and poetic dose we need. Promising Young Woman senses this, almost identifies with it, and then pulls back


Promising Young Woman asks “How do we keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner?” It not only asks this question of Cassie: it also asks this question of rape-revenge as a genre. Via the intertextual presence of Robert Mitchum, it brings the memory of its cinematic antecedents to bear on contemporary debates about sexualised violence and consent, and on the contemporary evolution of the genre. Fennell draws revenge back towards the cisgender woman avenger, but she also interrogates its dangers. Cassie is a woman living with trauma. Her life is wasted in the pursuit of revenge, and in its crushingly bitter ending, which is barely relieved by the final ironic ;), Promising Young Woman asserts that violence is not an answer that is available to most women, but simultaneously, and disappointingly, forecloses the possibility of some other kind of justice – justice that isn’t tied to social media and the ethics of the law. Cassie’s final text to Ryan declares that the revenge cycle initiated by Nina’s rape has ended. 

Promising Young Woman

But there is that wink. There is a suggestion that it hasn’t really ended. During the montage that plays through that scene, Gail finds half a broken heart necklace inscribed “Cassie.” In the death scene, Cassie wore a similar necklace inscribed “Nina.” This is the kind of gift that carries with it an obligation. Perhaps, in its closing moments, Promising Young Woman passes the baton of revenge from a cisgender white woman to a trans black woman. Promising Young Woman sends rape-revenge in a new direction. 

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman


  1. Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden (London: Nick Hern Books, 2013 (1994)), pp. 73-74
  2. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) notwithstanding. Claire Henry includes Memento as a rape-revenge film, but its particular take on revenge and memory is unique: it is the exception that proves the rule. Claire Henry, Revisionist Rape-Revenge Redefining a Film Genre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2014), p. 14
  3. Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992)
  4. Jacinda Read, The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity, and the Rape-Revenge Cycle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 235
  5. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland, 2011) N. Pag.; Henry, p. 169.
  6. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, “Alexandra Heller-Nicholas Reviews: Ammonite, Promising Young Woman, and One Night in Miami,” Nightlife, 12 January 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/nightlife/film/13054568.
  7. Joy McEntee, “Vigilantism and the Law in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Film Criticism, volume 45, issue 1 (2021), https://journals.publishing.umich.edu/fc/article/id/977/.
  8. Molly Ferguson, “‘I Retract That Bit…’: Hypermasculinity and Violence in Martin McDonagh’s Films,” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory vol 30, issue 1 (2019): 25-43
  9. See Shivani Gopal, “A Promising Young Woman: A Film That Could Have Only Been Made by Women,” Women’s Agenda, 13 January 2021, https://womensagenda.com.au/life/screen/a-promising-young-woman-a-film-that-could-have-only-been-made-by-women/
  10. Heller-Nicholas, “Alexandra Heller-Nicholas Reviews”
  11. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, vol. 16 (1975): pp. 6-18.
  12. Heller-Nicholas, Rape-Revenge Films, N. Pag.
  13. Anne Cohen, “Emerald Fennell Breaks Down Promising Young Woman’s Devastating Twist,” Refinery29, 26 December 2020, https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/12/10238043/promising-young-woman-ending-explainer-cassie-death
  14. Antonia Blyth, “‘Promising Young Woman’: How Director Emerald Fennell & Carey Mulligan Concealed a Timely Truth Bomb Amid ’90s Nostalgia,” Deadline, 13 January 2021, https://deadline.com/2021/01/promising-young-woman-carey-mulligan-emerald-fennell-focus-features-interview-news-1234671173/; John Boone, “’Promising Young Woman’ Ending Explained by Director Emerald Fennell (Exclusive),” ET, 19 January 2021, https://www.etonline.com/promising-young-woman-ending-explained-158263
  15. Cohen
  16. ‘Promising Young Woman‘s Cast Explains the Female Revenge Thriller,” Variety, 29 January 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFg8Hh5LpZ4.
  17. Katie McCabe, “Promising Young Woman,” Time Out, 15 April 2021, https://www.timeout.com/movies/promising-young-woman-2021.
  18. Mary Beth McAndrews, “On the Disempowerment of Promising Young Woman,” RogerEbert.com, 13 January 2021, https://www.rogerebert.com/features/on-the-disempowerment-of-promising-young-woman.
  19. Jenny Singer, “You Should Watch Promising Young Woman Whether or Not It Wins an Oscar,” Glamour, 20 April 2021, https://www.glamour.com/story/promising-young-woman-oscar
  20. Henry, p. 1
  21. Anne Billson, “How the ‘Rape-Revenge Movie’ Became a Feminist Weapon for the #Metoo Generation,” The Guardian, 11 May 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/may/11/how-the-rape-revenge-movie-became-a-feminist-weapon-for-the-metoo-generation.
  22. McAndrews
  23. Caetlin Benson-Allott, “‘Promising Young Woman’ Confuses Viewers. That’s What Makes It Brilliant,” The Washington Post, 24 April 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/04/24/promising-young-woman-genre-confusion/.
  24. Rebecca Liu, ““Yes, Girls, We Love Your Corpses”: Emerald Fennell’s ‘Promising Young Woman’,” Another Gaze, 27 April 2021, https://www.anothergaze.com/yes-girls-love-corpses-emerald-fennells-promising-young-woman/.; Delia Harrington, “Promising Young Woman’s Polarizing Ending Sends a Harmful Message to Rape Survivors,” Polygon, 25 January 2021, https://www.polygon.com/movies/2021/1/25/22244862/promising-young-woman-ending-survivors-message.; Henry, p. 79
  25. Alison Willmore, “The Queasy Ending of Promising Young Woman,” Vulture, 15 January 2021, https://www.vulture.com/article/the-queasy-ending-of-promising-young-woman.html
  26. Dan Scully, “Promising Young Woman (Dir. Emerald Fennell): Film Review,” Phindie, 20 December 2020, http://phindie.com/22059-promising-young-woman-dir-emerald-fennell-film-review/
  27. Mathew Lloyd, “Painful, but Fun to Watch. ‘Promising Young Woman’ Is a ‘Poison Popcorn Movie,’” Los Angeles Times, 9 February 2021, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2021-02-09/emerald-fennell-promising-young-woman-screenplay
  28. Simon Thompson, “Emerald Fennell Talks ‘Promising Young Woman’ and Being Inspired by ‘Murder She Wrote’,” Forbes, 22 December 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/simonthompson/2020/12/22/writer-director-emerald-fennell-talks-promising-young-woman-and-being-inspired-by-murder-she-wrote/?sh=19c03d8c2472
  29. Carrie Wittmer, “How ‘Promising Young Woman’ Weaponizes Hollywood’s Nice Guys,” The Ringer, 19 January 2021, https://www.theringer.com/movies/2021/1/19/22238452/promising-young-woman-casting-adam-brody-bo-burnham-max-greenfield.
  30. Fennell in Thompson
  31. Genna Rivieccio, “The Night of a New Hunter: Promising Young Woman,” Culled Culture, 2 January 2021, https://www.culledculture.com/the-night-of-a-new-hunter-promising-young-woman/
  32. McCabe
  33. Simon Callow, The Night of the Hunter (London: BFI, 2000), p. 9
  34. Callow p. 57
  35. McEntee
  36. Dennis Harvey, “‘Promising Young Woman’: Film Review,” Variety, 26 January 2020, https://variety.com/2020/film/reviews/promising-young-woman-review-1203480660/
  37. Fennell has demonstrated her sympathies with nonbinary gender identities by playing in Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia, 2011) and The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, 2015), and with non-heteronormative sexualities by playing in Vita and Virginia (Chanya Button, 2018).
  38. Harvey
  39. McAndrews
  40. Benson-Allott; Sophie Gilbert, “Promising Young Woman Sets a Ravishing Trap,” The Atlantic, 28 December 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/12/emerald-fennell-promising-young-woman-subverting-femininity/617467/
  41. Gilbert
  42. Ann Hornaday, “The Film ‘Promising Young Woman’ Floats Like a Butterfly, Stings Like a Bee,” Washington Post, 22 December 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/promising-young-woman-movie-review/2020/12/21/1a09f126-3f2a-11eb-8db8-395dedaaa036_story.html
  43. Jeffrey Couchman, The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2009), p. 94
  44. Clarke also makes this connection. Donald Clarke, “Promising Young Woman: Garish but Gratifying Revenge Flick,” The Irish Times, 16 April 2021, https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/promising-young-woman-garish-but-gratifying-revenge-flick-1.4536091
  45. Clover, p. 138
  46. Rivieccio
  47. McCabe
  48. Rivieccio
  49. Amy Skjerseth, “Multiplying Mise-En-Scène: Found Sounds of The Night of the Hunter in Lewis Klahr’s Daylight Moon and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) Du Cinéma,” Film Criticism, vol. 44, no. 1 (2020) https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/fc/13761232.0044.108?view=text;rgn=main.
  50. Skjerseth

About The Author

Joy McEntee SFHEA is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide. Her work focuses on American film, especially Stanley Kubrick, and literature-to-film adaptation. It has appeared in The Bloomsbury Companion to Stanley Kubrick, Camera Obscura, Screening the Past, Senses of Cinema, Adaptation, Literature/Film Quarterly and the Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance.

Related Posts